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Book Review: The Hammer Vault by Marcus Hearn

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Though it doesn’t by any means claim to be a definitive history of the influential British horror film company, Marcus Hearn’s The Hammer Vault (Titan Books) serves as a tantalizing overview of Hammer Films. Following the company’s releases chronologically — from its earliest sci-fi releases (Quatermass Xperiment, X – the Unknown), its bloody gothic remakes (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, et al) and their multitude of sequels through later hits like the Raquel Welch break-out One Million Years B.C., Hearn’s coffee table book devotes two pages apiece to depicting publicity material, script pages, and props to each film, with text providing historical context for each release.

While much of the company’s oeuvre looks tame today, it’s amusing to see how much outrage they generated among British film critics back in the day. Hammer cannily took advantage of this notoriety (placing the letter “X” prominently in two of its earliest title, for instance), later making a practice of hiring Playboy playmates as heroines in their films — and trumpeting this fact in their promo material.

Among the collectibles included in this book, Hearn amusingly includes some scathing contemporary reviews. 1957’s Revenge of Frankenstein, for instance, drew a newspaper piece lamenting its release — and ending with a plea for gentler movies (“the films longest remembered are the ones in which truth is coupled with the warmth of kindness.”) Though the company made periodic bids for critical respectability (e.g., the Bette Davis stage-based black comedy, The Anniversary), its origins as a manufacturer of gory gothics repeatedly worked against it.

Prudishly critical nay-sayers aside, to lovers of old-fashioned horror, just the Hammer brand name conjures up a body of richly filmed genre works. The company made the careers of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who both appeared in its first two gothic remakes, Frankenstein and Dracula.

That first is particularly noteworthy for the way scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster treated Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, changing him from an obsessive misguided scientist to an amoral s.o.b., a reconfiguration that would characterize Hammer’s anti-hero through a number of sequels.

Going through Vault, I was happily reminded of some lesser-known flicks that I first saw as a teen at the drive-in (Plague of the Zombies, Countess Dracula, Vampire Circus) and took note of some that as far as I can tell never saw release in the states (The Brigand of Kandahar?) Though its primary reputation resides in its horror fare, Hammer regularly put out other types of genre works: pirate movies, H. Rider Haggar-styled adventures (including the Ursula Andress version of She), prehistoric women yarns and black-and-white girl-in-peril suspensers.

There was even a misguided attempt at creating a white Shaft (named Shatter) starring Stuart Whitman that went nowhere — plus a fiscally disastrous stab at blending vampire flicks with Shaw Brothers kung-fu entitled Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Vault covers ‘em all, but the image that inevitably achieves cover prominence is a poster shot of Christopher Lee’s fanged Dracula hovering over a comely damsel.

At times, Hearn’s accompanying text seems to focus more on production minutia than necessary — occasionally at the expense of telling the reader what each movie is actually about. We’re never told the meaning behind the title of Satanic Rites of Dracula, for instance, though the book notes that screenwriter Sangster was apparently drafted to craft the film’s base storyline and today has no memory of that commission. There’s a nice photo of Rites heroine Joanna Lumley smoking a cigarette between takes, though, looking very Ab Fab.

Though the company went through a period of prolonged invisibility, more recently it has re-emerged with a trio of stylish horror films (Wake Wood, The Resident and Let Me In) that has brought back fans’ attention. Considering this resurrection, I found myself recalling a droll poster that was used in America to sell the 1968 movie Dracula Has Risen from the Grave: featuring a photo of a full-breasted girl with two pink Band-Aids on her neck, the poster followed the movie title with a smaller lettered “Obviously” parenthetically included underneath it. In horror films, nothing stays dead forever . . .

Not even horror movie companies.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.